Relief, regret and excitement course through Andraz Struna as he speaks, in good English, about his first competitive football match for nine months.
The Slovenian international defender made his Hearts debut at Stark’s Park on Sunday and talks enthusiastically to the Evening News about finally being back on a pitch.
He has spent three quarters of a year without a club, training alone, hiring personal coaches and individual fitness trainers, and coping with the frustration of losing his international place. Decisions taken last summer after leaving the Greek side PAS Giannina were, by Struna’s own admission, naive and costly.
He is at Tynecastle to make up for lost time and reclaim that spot in Slovenia’s national team. A strong performance against Raith Rovers is just the beginning for the man tasked with replacing Hearts’ injured full-back Callum Paterson. Struna’s last competitive outing was in Giannina’s 1-0 Greek Super League win at Xanthi on April 17 last year. It has been a long nine months.
“It’s a long story, many things happened,” he says in his first newspaper interview since arriving in Edinburgh on a six-month contract. “I had some things to think about and maybe I was naive in some moments. In other moments, maybe I didn’t make good decisions. It was both. I didn’t have a good experience with this but I don’t want to talk specifically.”
Interest from Croatia and Serbia didn’t materialise into a signed contract. “There were a lot of possibilities and, in the end, I was left without a club,” he continues. “These things happen in football. I had to train by myself. I hired a professional coach to train me individually in Slovenia. I also trained with some other players I know. I was actually more busy than I would have been if I was with a club. I didn’t go on holiday for a few months.”
A cryptic Twitter message posted by the player in August last year hinted at being let down by a former agent. It read: “They told me, be careful which agent you trust. Now I understand these words. Too late. Consequences always pays player, unfortunately.”
Struna now works with a different representative who helped him secure the short-term deal at Hearts. “It was a hard period but now I am looking forward. My agent called me and introduced me to the project at Hearts. I was interested so I took the decision very quickly. Things went very smoothly from my side.
“Of course, I want to be back in the Slovenia squad. From the summer, let’s say I made some bad decisions about this. I waited so long for a new team and I lost my place in the national team. I am very motivated to come back. I still have a chance. I hope the games here for Hearts will help me.”
He showed plenty indication on his comeback that he can add to his 25 caps. There were few signs of rustiness during Hearts’ 1-1 Scottish Cup draw in Kirkcaldy. Struna will now get his first experience of Tynecastle earlier than expected in tomorrow night’s replay.
“It’s true I did not play for a long time. I feel good after such a long time without playing,” says the 27-year-old. “The feelings came back to me so I am really happy I am starting to play again. Honestly, I have been here since Wednesday. If you look at it that way, you cannot be 100 per cent but you must start from somewhere. I felt comfortable to start the game on Sunday. I’m sure that, from game to game, I will be better and I will find it easier.”
Replacing Paterson is a daunting assignment given the Scotland player’s ten-goal contribution from defence this season. Struna isn’t short on self-assurance, though. A fine turn of pace is one of his main attributes and he is focused on defending first and foremost.
“What kind of player am I? This is maybe a question for the people who watch me,” he says with a smile. “I like to have balance in my game. First of all, I am a defender so I must do my defensive work first. After that, I want to help the team to attack and to have support from the right side.
“I want the players to give me the ball and I can try some combinations. With passes from the team I can get very high up the pitch. This is my style of play. I cannot go alone from my own half and just run with the ball all the way up.
“I like the team to pass between themselves. From these combinations, we can create free space. I want to run outside and then play the ball into the box for someone to finish. That’s my way of playing.”
Satisfaction at his own personal display is tempered somewhat by what was a disappointing end result for Hearts in Fife.
“The result is not good for us. It’s not what we wanted from the first game,” admits Struna. “We wanted to finish with a win and a place in the next round of the Scottish Cup. Now we have another game in front of us. Raith is a hard team but we were optimistic.
“We must look at some details of our offensive game. We tried to play on Sunday but we didn’t create many chances. Maybe this is the reason. The first half was okay, we take 1-0 at half-time, but in the second half we needed one more goal to have the game in our control. Raith had some corners and free-kicks, they pressed us from this and got a 1-1 draw.
“Our plan was to get to the next round from the first game. Now we have made things a little bit harder for ourselves. After the cup replay we have two very hard games in the league against good opponents [Celtic and Rangers]. To play every three days is difficult, of course, but we are not looking back. We must look forward and concentrate on our next game to show our qualities.”